Death in a Two-Storey Universe


I have written before about the two-storey universe that is part of our cultural inheritance in the modern world. I have noted that the default position of our culture is secular protestantism. I have explained that I mean not that we do not believe in God, but that in our dominant cultural metaphor the God we believe in is removed from our everyday affairs. Often what we are left with is a collection of doctrines to which, for one reason or another, we have given allegiance. But there remains the two-storey universe.

Now the primary difficulty of the two storey universe is that we live on the first floor while (our metaphor would have it) God lives on the second floor. The great unspoken fear for all on the first floor is that no one actually lives on the second floor. Everytime a board creaks we quickly rush to proclaim, “Miracle,” mostly because it finally gives us some evidence that God is moving around up there.

Rumor has it that when some one of us dies, their soul gets to move to the second-storey. If, however, they were bad, or failed to have correct theology, or a number of other factors, they have to go to the basement (this actually gives us three storeys). Our culture is certain that no one goes from the basement to the second floor (this of course is guaranteed by the reading of Luke 16:26 which speaks of a “great gulf that is fixed” between the sufferings of gehenna and the joys of Paradise).

There are those who spend a great deal of time, and money, trying to prove that there really are souls of the departed on the second floor. They make the mistake of becoming Spiritualists, and are all about “proving” there is life after death.

The full effect of all of this metaphysical architecture is that we live in ignorance. We want to believe that someone is on the second floor, but we’re not sure. Thus there can be a dogged fundamentalism with regard to certain passages of Scripture and the way they are interpreted, because it is seen as the only guarantee that we’re right about the second storey. But try as we might – it is an inherent part of life in a two-storey universe that you can never be sure and that doubt always dogs your every thought.

Thus death becomes a crisis of faith. The industry surrounding death is a large part of our culture as well. Today, we often “celebrate life” rather than speak of the second story. We simply remember how good the first floor is and say goodby to those whom we will miss.

In its proclamation of the Gospel, the Orthodox Church predates the two-storey universe. This is a distinct advantage. We do not hear hymns that are full of modern doubt, nor our own lack of confidence echoing back at us. Indeed, Orthodoxy proclaims that when we gather for worship, there are no two-storeys – that Heaven and Earth are together – that we actually eat of the marriage feast – indeed its food is nothing other than the Body and Blood of God. To the question: “Do you believe in God?” We may answer: “Believe in Him? We eat His Body and drink His blood!” I mean nothing blasphemous in the statement – but simply state the facts.

It is this presence-of-Heaven-here-and-now that is Orthodoxy’s primary assault against the mistaken notions of the two-storey universe. For that proclamation is indeed the truth. Our cultural metaphor is like the lie of the White Witch who imprisoned the children beneath the moutain and told them there was no Narnia. We pray in the beginning of almost all our prayers, “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things…” Learning to pray in such a manner and to gradually come out of the darkness of the lie and into the brightness of the truth is also leaving the two-storey universe and coming to live where there is but one storey.

William Dalrymple in his wonderful book, From the Holy Mountain, relates a wonderful one-storey account of the monks (Coptic Orthodox) of the Monastery of St. Antony in the Desert of Egypt. Only the smallest hint of a two-storeyed world has reached them and find the notion unbelievable:

The monks of St. Anthony’s remain wonderfully Dark Age in their outlook and conversation. Exorcisms, miraculous healings and ghostly apparitions of long-dead saints are to the monks what doorstep milk deliveries are to suburban Londoners – unremarkable everyday occurrences that would never warrant a passing mention if foreigners did not always seem to be so inexplicably amazed by them:

“See up there?” said Abuna Dioscorus, as I was finishing my egg. He pointed to the space between the two towers of the abbey church. “In June 1987 in the middle of the night our father St. Antony appeared there hovering on a cloud of shining light.”

“You saw this?” I asked.

“No,” said Fr. Dioscorus. “I’m short-sighted.”

He took off his spectacles to show me the thickness of the glass.

“I can barely see the abbot when I sit beside him at supper,” he said. “But many other fathers saw the apparition. On one side of St. Antony stood St. Mark the Hermit and on the other was Abuna Yustus.”

“Abuna Yustus?”

“He is one of our fathers. He used to be the sacristan.”

“So what was he doing up there?”

“He had just departed this life.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see.”

“Officially he’s not a saint yet, but I’m sure he will be soon. His canonization is up for discussion at the next Coptic synod. His relics have been the cause of many miracles: blind children have been made to see, the lame have got up from their wheelchairs…”

“All the usual sort of stuff.”

“Exactly. But you won’t believe this-”

Here Fr. Dioscorus lowered his voice into a whisper.

“You won’t believe this but we had some visitors from Europe two years ago – Christians, some sort of Protestants – who said they didn’t believe in the power of relics!”

The monk stroked his beard, wide-eyed with disbelief.

“No,” he continued. “I’m not joking. I had to take the Protestants aside and explain that we believe that St. Antony and all the fathers have not died, that they live with us, continually protecting us and looking after us. When they are needed – when we go to their graves and pray to their relics – they appear and sort out our problems.”

“Can the monks see them?”

“Who? Protestants?”

“No. These deceased fathers.”

“Abuna Yustus is always appearing,” said Fr. Dioscorus matter-of-factly. “In fact one of the fathers had a half-hour conversation with him the day before yesterday. And of course St. Antony makes fairly regular appearances – although he is very busy these days answering prayers all over the world. But even when we cannot see the departed fathers we can always feel them. And besides – there are many other indications that they are with us.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What sort of indications?”

“Well, take last week for instance. The Bedouin from the desert are always bringing their sick to us for healing. Normally it is something quite simple: we let them kiss a relic, give them an aspirin and send them on their way. But last week they brought in a small girl who was possessed by a devil. We took the girl into the church, and as it was the time for vespers one of the fathers went off to ring the bell for prayers. When he saw this the devil inside the girl began to cry: ‘Don’t ring the bell! Please don’t ring the bell!’ We asked him why not. ‘Because,’ replied the devil, ‘when you ring the bell it’s not just the living monks who come into the church: all the holy souls of the fathers join with you too, as well as great multitudes of angels and archangels. How can I remain in the church when that happens? I’m not staying in a place like that.’ At that moment the bell began to ring, the girl shrieked and the devil left her! ”

Fr. Dioscorus clicked his fingers: “Just like that. So you see,” he said. “That proves it.”

Indeed, it does prove it, and those of us who do spiritual battle in a two, even three-storey universe can only marvel and say, “Pray for us!” How sad for us that we perceive ourselves to be in such a small universe, longing for more, hoping for more, arguing for more, starving for more. God give us grace and have mercy on such blindness as is ours! Come and drive away the dark demons and their lies!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


19 responses to “Death in a Two-Storey Universe”

  1. […] Stephen, whose writing is always fantastic, has an especially noteworthy post up about Death in a two-story universe. I have noted that the default position of our culture is secular protestantism. I have explained […]

  2. […] Orthodox Priest Fr. Stephen, Glory to God for All Things, he has an interesting post, called “Death in a Two Storey Universe. Here is an […]

  3. […] Sunday, August 12th, 2007 in ponderings, blogs Fr. Stephen has a wonderful post about Death in a Two-Storey Universe – check it out! […]

  4. Sophocles Avatar

    Father bless,

    Thank you so much for this post. You’re correct in your observation I believe. We are, let me make it more personal, I’m starving to inhabit an unfragmented world, to let myself “see” and live in the true world which our Holy Faith over and over affirms is one. In a sense, there is no “spiritual” vs. “material” as we come to know that in the Person of our Blessed Lord, He is fully God, fully Man.

    I’ve heard other such stories of monastics who are that simple, as children. I have come to believe increasingly they are correct and my own efforts to prove this or that is like a boy whistling in the dark to keep up his flagging spirit.

    We creatures live in this vale of tears and I would say that we’re all doing the very best we can with what we have been given. But you end your post with the truth that it is a war we are in where our enemy would have us become earthbound, divorced completely from expecting anything beyond what we can understand, feel, touch, see, smell, hear, in other words, “This is it. Live it up. Earth is your home. It’s been proven. End game”.

    Thank you once again for this beautiful, and more importantly, true post.

    In Christ and in fellowship,

  5. AR Avatar

    The overall thought of this post is a wonderful, much-needed idea. A couple of questions, if I may.

    First, you mention a “two, or even three-storey universe.” Does that mean that in Orthodox doctrine a realm of punishment, or eternal punishment, after this life is not dogmatically believed?

    Second, you talk about the eucharist as the marriage feast of the Lamb. Do the Orthodox believe that there is also an eschatalogical dimmension to that feast?


  6. […] Death in a Two-Storey Universe [image] I have written before about the two-storey universe that is part of our cultural inheritance in the modern […] […]

  7. kevinburt Avatar


    For many of us coming from this “two storey world,” figuring out how to believe that it’s not really such can be difficult, to say the least. Reading posts like this help, but I wonder — and I know there is no magic step or immediate fix — how can those of us who have inhabited such a world for so long find our way into “the heavenlies” again?

    I don’t know how to really explain this, but for me, I never had a single “aha” moment. I simply decided that Orthodoxy made more sense, and then I began to speak as if I believe in all these “relics” and “superstitions” (as I was told that they were). I have to confess that, at first, I felt almost as if I were fibbing, though I was trying to believe. But, over the course of a year or more, I have found that there is far less “fibbing” on my part and much more true belief.

    But, i still struggle sometimes…. I still feel the long-ingrained habits of skeptical and “rationalistic” thought that I grew up with. Can you offer advice to those like me who struggle to let go of our “Protestant secularism,” though we genuinely want to?

  8. […] Aug 12th, 2007 by kevinburt Death in a Two-Storey Universe […]

  9. tess Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for your words.

    For the sake of accuracy, it was the Emerald Witch (in The Silver Chair) who tried to convince the children that Narnia did not exist.


  10. fatherstephen Avatar


    The Orthodox believe that hell is real. Though the better and more profound writing tends to understand it as a state of the heart rather than as a place.

    The Orthodox believe that the Eucharist is indeed eschatological. It is the marriage feast now as it will be then.

  11. Fatherstephen Avatar

    kevinburt – I appreciate your comments and their honesty. We have to start there if anywhere. As I’m working on these posts I’ll be indeed trying to offer some answers to precisely your questions. How do we go from this distortion of a two (or three) storey universe and live (as I think the faith teaches) in a one-storey universe – or simply live in reality as it is (which is permeated by God). I’ll write more tomorrow – but it’s a late Sunday for me now…

  12. David Avatar

    I cannot yet believe these things monks say. But my heart pounds in my chest as if to try to drown my doubt.

    I both long for and fear such experiences. While I can remain in my doubt there is freedom of pride and the only result I can see from such an experience is the utter destruction of myself. When the scriptures say to see the face of God would destroy a man, I need no such lesson. In my heart, I know this thing.

    I went to St Barbara’s Monastery a bit less than an hour’s drive from my house. The nuns (Serbian Orthodox, I believe) were very helpful. We picked up a copy of the Orthodox Study Bible (NT and Psalms), several introductions and pamphlet-style publications dealing with various matters of the church.

    Most precious to me, I picked up a copy of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich’s “Prayers by the Lake”. As I flipped through the pages I could barely contain myself wanting to read each allowed to my wife. We spent much of the weekend reading various items.

    One other item we picked up was a sort of beginner’s guide to prayer, written by an Orthodox priest from Florida. An excellent book, but a dangerous one for a Protestant to read. He speaks of divine experiences (this one story world) with such matter-of-fact voice that he himself remarks that one must be careful not to assume that just because you can’t concentrate doesn’t necessarily mean Satan has arrived to destroy your fervent prayer life.

    My wife had a long discussion about miracles and visions. As a child, I have memories of things I have seen that I could say belonged to the child’s imagination. As an adult I would have no such explanation. So, it is with great anxiety I begin a disciplined prayer life today.

    Miracles can be in the eye of the beholder (or obscured by the eye). Strange that you would be talking about such things (I think even the time of your post corresponds to the time of our conversation). I feel I’m being taunted with Serendipity.

    My wife confessed to me that she has been asking on thing above all else since the death of our son. She has asked the Lord to send an angel to tell her that our son is safe and well. Visions, it seems, might save or destroy.

  13. Fatherstephen Avatar

    David, thank you for your honesty and sharing. It simply underscores how prevalent and poignant the spiritual consequences of our two-storey world-view. It does make us ache. It devours our beloved departed into forgetfulness. It breaks a mother’s heart.

    I am certain that your son is safe and well and pray that God will indeed comfort your wife.

    I have not gotten to the place where I will write about this in detail, but I will simply say, that as you start, start slowly and be patient. What we need in our life God will supply, including the healing of our heart and mind. What we need is prayer and to commit ourselves moment by moment to God who loves us and surrounds us with His grace. There is no serendipity. God is with us.

  14. […] Fr Stephen has a series of one and two “storey” worldviews that is interesting, start here, then here and (so far) […]

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    I understand that Prayers by the Lake by St. Nicholai Velimirovich is out of print. It is available to read at this link.

  16. JewishAtheist Avatar

    Interesting analogy. To be more fitting, though, it’s necessary that we can’t even show that there is a second floor, let alone that spirits or God live there.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar


    Indeed. I would suggest that the second storey idea is a source for certain kinds of atheism. I am suggesting that the second storey notion is a fairly new idea (in Christianity – perhaps even to Judaism – I don’t know) and that proper teaching of God who is here, as I believe, is a different question. But I would agree that the second storey itself creates opportunities of doubts and questions and disbelief.

  18. Octavius Avatar

    I really enjoy this post. I’ve just stumbled upon this site for the first time, and was reading happily until the ending. I don’t understand how the anecdote proves anything, but rather is an example of one aspect of god which we don’t understand (I use the lowercase because I refuse to compare the All Mighty with the loaded term “God”)

    I see the world as containing countless entities which posses god. These gods are on our floor and a number of them above and below (i.e. microscopic, atomic, our solar system, our galaxy). God exists everywhere at all times. God is in a monk, a priest, a tree and a flame. The heavens and underworld which texts refer to is the vast layers and realm of our planet and outer space which is beyond our vision, and when the earth quakes, or parts of theses heavens align or come down to our ‘floor’ are minds are blown trying to pinpoint the cause. Science is helping us study these gears of god.

    Your God and my gods operate as the same All Mighty force which appears in countless forms. Every time you begin to act according to your inner beliefs and ethics you should also take into consideration that you will be affecting real gods in the only reality you have now. Only you can justify your actions, but god is the one you affect.

    We need to communicate with each other to determine the best option, and check your own righteousness at the door. We need to drop the concept of a removed God, and focus on the world at hand.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Octavius, your thoughts are interesting and I’m glad you found the site. The difference between what you have written and what I have written (besides many content issues) is that yours represent your own ideas (very creative and observant).

    What I have written represents not my own ideas but the Orthodox Christian faith, a tradition of 2000 years, given by Christ to His disciples. As an Orthodox priest, I am not free to make up my own ideas about what has been revealed by God. There is a signficant difference, not only in content, but what it means to serve a God you did not create.

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